Sunday 21 July 2019


Handwritten commentary by the Baruch Taam.
Recently a handwritten text by R. Baruch Teomim Frankel - also known as Baruch Taam[1] (1760-1828) - was discovered.

The text comprises thousands of his commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. The interesting thing is that it differs, in dozens of instances, from the printed version of his same text.

This is not an isolated instance where somehow the original text gets distorted and interpolated in the process of printing. And this occurred relatively recently - during the 1800s - but as we go further back into history we see the effects of this type of distortion even more acutely.

In this article, we will take an inside look at how handwritten rabbinic manuscripts were copied and transmitted during the Middle Ages. I draw largely but not exclusively from a paper by Professor of Codicology and Palaeography, Malachi Beit-Arié.[2]


In the first nine printed editions of Rashi, for example, not one of them is identical to the other! 

Rabbi Dr Shnayer Leiman illustrates just how variant the early printed versions of Rashi were, by comparing nine early editions of the first printings of Rashi on the same verse:


One may have thought that a simple solution would have been to consult earlier handwritten manuscripts of Rashi to ascertain which editions were more accurate - but the manuscripts were themselves even more subject to variations. [See And What Does Rashi Say?]

One advantage which the printed texts had was that if an author wished to update or change his first edition, he could simply produce a second edition. With manuscripts, however, the author had little or no control over his texts once they were copied.

There is evidence that - before the completion of an author’s entire work - sections of it would have already been copied and distributed. This is why often an author would suggest a correction to an earlier section, which is something he wouldn’t have suggested had the work been presented as a whole, because then he could have made the amendment himself. This indicates that an author had very little control over his writings once the copyists had gotten hold of them.

Here are some examples brought by Beit-Arie’:

Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) was aware of the distortion following in the wake of actions by manuscript copyists. He appealed to readers to check and emend his copied texts in instances where the content was presented inaccurately by the copyists. Of course this process would open a proverbial can of worms as he would have little or no control over what changes were made.


The grammarian Yona ibn Yanach (990-1055) writes in his Sefer haShorashim that he wanted to make an amendment to an earlier section but that section had already been copied and disseminated.


R. Levi ben Avraham’s (1245-1315)[3] writes in his colophon[4] to his Livyat Chen, that he made numerous corrections after some of the copyists had already begun to copy his text. He appeals to all who have those copies to correct them according to his updated version, or to replace the older copies with newer ones.

Two hundred years later, R. Yitzchak Stein wrote a commentary on the Semag or Sefer Mitzvot Gadol[5]. This commentary, in manuscript form, was copied and edited by his son in 1506. His son wrote that his father’s original copy had commentaries on almost every paragraph of the Semag, which his father intended to edit at some later stage. However, copies were made of the unedited text which was not finalized, without R. Stein even being aware of it.


These examples show that during the Middle Ages intellectual ownership of a text was different from the modern conception of such ownership which is far more controlled. During the Middle Ages it appears that there was the idea of ‘collective ownership’ of all Hebrew texts.

As Beit-Arié puts it:
“This...may also explain the editorial freedom exercised by scribes in reproducing texts...”

Scribes could freely emend (correct) and sometimes even amend (change) texts and such practices were not infrequent nor were they considered untoward - and were often even encouraged. In some instances, the scribes had such freedom that they may be defined more like editors than copyists.

Rambam writes in his Guide for the Perplexed, that: “I have divided it into chapters, each of which shall be sent to you as soon as it is completed.”[6] This again indicates that texts often were copied before the entire work was completed, and before the author could edit it with a full overview.

Rambam was very concerned that his texts be copied accurately, especially as he was known to fastidiously correct and re-correct his writings (particularly his commentary on the Mishna). He provides us with the only surviving example of an ‘authorized’ master version, or exemplar, from which future scribes could copy from. 

He took the unusual step to attach his signature to a section of his Mishneh Torah indicating that this was his final version. This Authorized Version with his signature is housed at the Bodleian Library.

Generally, though, it was uncommon for authors to authorize their works and instead copies were usually made without the consent or even the knowledge of the author.



In the non-Jewish world, up until the middle of the 1200s, Latin texts were copied and distributed by formal institutions such as scriptoria which were specifically set aside within monasteries for the copying of texts.


From the middle of the 1200s, with the rise of the universities, a process was established whereby a pecia or ‘piece’ of text was deemed to be accurate and authoritative for their students. Scribes were then hired to make copies, which became known as apopecia

The copying process became quite scientific as each authorized text was divided into smaller pieces, and each small piece was copied by a designated scribe. This scribal ‘production line’ proved to be quicker than one scribe copying an entire manuscript by himself.


Beit-Arié describes the difference between the process of copying Hebrew and Latin texts as follows:

“...Hebrew medieval books were not produced by the intellectual establishments, or upon their initiative, whether in religious, academic or secular institutional copying centers, but privately and individually.

A medieval Jew who wished to obtain or use a copy of a certain book would either purchase it from a private owner or hire a professional or semi-professional scribe to produce a copy for him, or he would copy the book himself...

While the institutional and centralized nature of Latin book production involved control and standardization of the texts produced, no authoritative supervision was involved in the transmission of Hebrew texts.”


While Hebrew texts did not emanate from formally controlled establishments, there emerged, however, a form of de facto ‘self-regulatory’ accuracy markers within the scribal community. That was attained to some degree by determining which category of scribe copied the text. 

There were two main categories of scribes: The professional or hired scribe and the scholar who copied the text for himself.

The hired scribe would have been more careful about copying just what he was paid to copy and did not usually try to change or correct the text. He produced the most accurate copies, but would also have reproduced and perpetuated mistakes in the original text because he was simply paid ‘to copy’.

On the other hand, the talmid chacham or scholar who produced the text for his own study and not necessarily to be part of the textual transmission process, would not have hesitated to ‘correct’ the text and to make ‘necessary’ changes.


The information as to which category of scribe copied a particular text is found in the colophons (copyist’s emblems) which are appended to the texts.

According to the Hebrew Palaeography Project, the number of extant Hebrew manuscripts numbers around four thousand. Of these, just over half were manuscripts produced by private owners or scholars for their own personal use. The more accurate manuscripts produced by professionally hired scribes, however, numbers just less than half.

The irony is that while these numbers show the extent of Jewish scholarship, they unfortunately also indicate less accurate texts.

Beit-Arié explains that a similar phenomenon existed within the Muslim world as well, where most of their manuscripts were not from hired professional scribes but rather from scholar scribes. This, despite the fact that their scholars were advised to either hire professional scribes, or to buy books, rather than copy the manuscripts themselves.


Both hired and private scribes were aware of their fallibility and many of them included appeals for forgiveness for any errors, in their colophons. They appealed to readers to correct the mistakes - which shows that they too were aware that their texts may have become somewhat corrupted. 

However, this acknowledgement was usually only the case in places in the Near East such as Yemen, as opposed to Italy, Northern France and Germany where this was not common practice. 

Instead these European scribes typically blamed their source material, the pressure of workload, poor working conditions and basic poverty, for any errors.

Beit-Arie’ cites an example of an Ashkenazi siddur copied around the 1300s. The copyist writes in his colophon:

“He who is going to curse me while reading this prayer book, the fault is mine and not mine, since I copied it from an erroneous exemplar. Furthermore, I was forced [to copy it], for I sold this prayer book, and having been hired, I was not able to pay attention to its essence.”


According to Sefer Chassidim, the copying of Hebrew texts was a job reserved for those who were incapable of studying even simple Torah and Aggadah. The wages of a copyist was lower than those of basic skilled workers.

Professor Yaakov Spiegel writes that the people of Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany) were known to have taken great liberties when it came to copying texts, even those of the Talmud itself and “the possibility of losing the original texts of these works was a genuine fear.”[7]

This was obviously an issue because Rabbenu Gershom (950-1028) - who lived in Mainz, Germany and who headed the Ashkenaz community - felt motivated to issue a decree that no one should add to or ‘correct’ a text they were copying.

Apparently, the copyists did not heed his decree.


The decree of Rabbeinu Gershom was primarily directed against the European Jewish scholars. However, in stark contrast were the Yemenite scholars who were known for their fastidiousness in textual accuracy.  


One European copyist who stands out as an exception to the rule was Yosef ben Eliezer of Spain, who, in the late 1300s, wrote ‘the scribes apology’. In it, he mentioned that his exemplar (a supercommentary on Ibn Ezra) was full of mistakes. In some cases, he felt that the author’s views did not make sense and he interpolated his own views instead - but this was noted and covered by his ‘apology’, a practice he encouraged other scribes to engage in as well.


The private or scholar scribe, on the other hand, viewed it as his sacred duty to correct and even edit the copy he was reproducing, and often he would make use of multiple source texts - exemplars - which differed from each other.

Yekutiel ben Meshulam, who copied Ibn Ezra’s Torah commentary in 1312, mentions that he made use of two different exemplars.

Ibn Sancho copied Ein haKoreh from five variant exemplars.

A copy of the Aruch was made in 1444 by a copyist who used two exemplars, one long and one short, and both of which he declares were inaccurate.

Beit-Arie’ writes:

“These and other colophons imply that many late medieval copies, particularly those produced for private use, were actually eclectic editions, in which different versions and reading were intermingled and merged by a critical process which included not only selecting readings but also emending and completing, usually without providing an apparatus criticus. Such copies involved, in effect, recreating the text.”


The Leiden Codex of 1289, a manuscript copy of the Jerusalem Talmud which served as the basis for the first printed version of its publication by Daniel Bomberg in 1523, is as an example of how easy it was for mistakes to occur.

This important manuscript was copied by R. Yechiel ben Yekutiel haRofeh.

“For codicological reasons Yehiel copied twice the text of one folio, in large format. I. Z. Feintuch, who compared the text of the two parallel leaves and analysed the differences between them, found at least fifty disagreements in the seventy-six duplicated lines!”

Fifty disparate versions in seventy-six lines is hardly comforting for an ‘authorised’ printed edition of the Yerushalmi.

[To read how more accurate sections of the Talmud Yerushalmi were recently discovered, see The Italian Geniza.]


Beit-Arie’ cites Kantorowicz who encapsulates the unique attitude of some rabbinic scholars who generally wanted to create what they considered to be a ‘richtige’ or ‘correct’ version rather than an ‘eghter’ or ‘authentic’ version of a text. 

Of course, the criteria for determining a ‘correct’ version of any text will differ from person to person in the absence of formal objective norms and standards.


Beit-Arie’ concludes:

“Therefore, many principles and practices of classical textual criticism, such as the establishing of genetic relationships between manuscripts, stemmatic classification, the reconstruction of archetypes and the restoration of the original, are not applicable to Hebrew manuscripts, not only because many of these represent horizontal rather than vertical transmission and so provide us with open recensions, but also because their texts may have been affected by the intervention of learned copyists.

Thus, contrary to common belief, medieval verbal texts were not fixed once they were written down.” 

This being the case, he asks, then, whether we should not just abandon these texts, especially the later ones, because of their unstable nature? And he answers his own question with a resounding: no! – because these are the only texts we have.

But he does suggest that:

“[W]e must use them with great caution, suspicion and scepticism, and above all refrain from establishing authentic texts, or even critical editions, and rather resort to the safe procedure of multi-diplomatic, synoptic presentation of the transmitted texts, while proposing our critical analysis and reconstruction in the form of notes.”


The Reader must bear in mind that this article deals specifically with the scribal practices surrounding some rabbinic texts and in no way should this be confused with the very strict and controlled safeguards implemented regarding the copying of Torah texts.

Although we focussed on the scribal transmission of rabbinic texts from around the 900s, it is interesting to see that even earlier scribal transmissions underwent similar challenges as well:

Rabbi Dr Yaakov Ellman shows how the Savoraim or Stammaim (500-650) who edited the Talmud Bavli, also intervened dramatically in the transmission of the texts. 

R. Elman writes that the editorial work of the Stammaim: “constitutes just over half of the total text of the Babylonian Talmud and ...frames the discussion of the rest.”  [See: Were the Editors of the Bavli More Powerful than its Writers?]

Historically, it is astounding to see just how powerful the copyists/editors of the rabbinic texts have always been. Far from just functionaries in a mechanical copying process, and in the absence of formal oversight, it seems that their influence was far more extensive than one may have imagined.

This point is sometimes overlooked when we open up crisp, new, well-bound and authoritative looking printed editions of what once were scribal transmissions of manuscripts, transmitted along the lines outlined above.

[1] So named after one of his works.
[2] Publication and Reproduction of Literary Texts in Medieval Jewish Civilization: Jewish Scribality and Its Impact on the Texts transmitted, by Malachi Beit-Arie'.
[3] Levi ben Avraham was a rationalist who believed in a blending to Torah and secular wisdom.
[4] A colophon is the copier’s (or writer’s or printer’s) emblem appearing at the beginning or end of a work, providing information about the author and the writing.
[5] Sefer Mitzvot Gadol was written by R. Moshe miKotzi (Coucy) in 1247. He was one of the four rabbis who defended the Talmud during the Disputation in Paris in 1242. The Semag was an early codification of Halacha, which was most likely inspired by the need for such a Code after the burning of the Talmuds and the urgent need for definitive law.
[6]Guide for the Perplexed, Friedlander (2nd edition), 2.
[7] Amudim beToldot haSefer haIvri, by Yaakov Spiegel.

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